The Avondhu - By The Fireside
From Kharkiv to Mitchelstown
The Rakhim family arrived in Ireland on 21st April, after leaving their home in Ukraine earlier this year. Now living in Kingston College in Mitchelstown, Olena Rakhim lives with her daughters, 20 year old Yasmin and Kamila, aged 6. Her son Daniel, who is 11, also lives in the newly-renovated house, as do Olena’s mother and the children’s grandmother, Nadia.
This will be their first Christmas in Ireland, and even though Yasmin puts a positive spin on it - “It might be exciting to spend Christmas in another European country” - there’s no escaping the fact that the family are not here by their own choice.
When Ukraine was attacked on 24th February by Russia, Olena thought “this isn’t real. It’s not possible.”
“I know no one can know the future, but you don’t expect this! You wake up in bed hearing explosions and think, am I hearing this? Am I still asleep? It’s a nightmare. You think, I need to get my kids. That’s your first thought.”
The family spent much of the first week of the the war in the basement of their 12-storey apartment block in the city of Kharkiv in Eastern Ukraine. In the mornings after an attack, they would go outside and find rockets in front of the buildings, and nearby blocks of apartments damaged. She shows
footage of apartment blocks in Kharkiv on her phone, and they are essentially rubble. Rows and rows of high apartment blocks with the front walls gone altogether. There’s no repair work imaginable; they’re destroyed.
In the days before Russia attacked, Yasmin says she was nervous and made preparations, like packing a small suitcase, as they were advised on TV. But Olena says she ‘never took it seriously’. In the years before Russia invaded Ukraine, the country had taken actions to remove some Soviet symbols from the country, as Ireland did when it renamed streets and removed statues of British colonialism.
“They always said, we’re like brothers. My whole life we spoke Russian; we still do. We had lots of contact between the two countries
- everyone has family in Russia. They say we’re fascist now just because we renamed some streets and removed some Soviet statues.”
‘YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW
IF YOU’LL WAKE UP’
Olena’s mother, Nadia was reluctant to leave, and even some time before the war began her daughter had told her that she needed to get a passport. She declined, saying that she would not need to travel outside of her home country again in her lifetime. As the family lived on the sixth floor, she already needed some living assistance even before the war, and so leaving without her was unthinkable.
“My mother didn’t want to come with us, but I said to her, how do you expect me to leave you here?”
Olena says she felt ‘like a traitor’ leaving home. Ultimately, it was a night in the basement when she says the younger kids were trying to sleep, that made the decision for her. They heard a fighter jet, or a rocket; something like that making a horrifically loud noise, outside.
“It was a terrible sound. I just had this impression that it was coming straight for us. I was thinking, this is the end. My life really did flash before my eyes. My youngest daughter, she was so frightened, and that’s when I realised we need to leave.”
“The most difficult day for me was the day we left Kharkiv. I felt like a traitor. But for my mental health and for the life of my children I had to leave. My kids don’t deserve to live through that.”
to nearby Lynch Army Camp in Kilworth, loud noises still unnerve her.
“Now if I hear thunder, I am afraid. I think it’s military planes, or a bomb. I used to like fireworks and celebrating New Year’s, but now I can’t even stand the sound of a balloon popping”.
“Thank God we didn’t stay. Some people still live there and we call them and ask, how is it today? And they tell us something like, ‘Oh, today it was just three explosions’. They’ve normalised it. They’re used to it, and that’s not right. When you live like that, you go to sleep and you don’t even know if you’ll wake up.”
ON THE MOVE
They drove for four days, initially aiming for Western Ukraine. The family’s preference was to stay close to home so they could easily return once it was safe to do so, and they subsequently stayed in Hungary for six weeks. Meanwhile, Yasmin’s biological father is Moroccan, so she went to join him there in March. However, this was less than ideal.
“My father is a supporter of Putin. It was really hard – an other world for me. We had a lot of conflicts. He also said, ‘Thank Putin, because if it wasn’t for him you wouldn’t be here’. I would watch the news in Morocco with him, and it seemed fake. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I think the footage was from the Syria war or something”.
In Hungary the family had spent all their savings, and the language barrier made it difficult for the younger kids to go to school, or for the older family members to work. The Hungarian language is completely different to many European languages, and is considered one of the most difficult to learn in the world. With the family fluent in English, they started looking to English-speaking countries and so, to Ireland they came, ultimately ending up in Millstreet, Co Cork.
Yasmin joined the rest of her family in Cork. Olena says that everyone they met was warm and helpful, but she was wary. Kharkiv has a population of close to 1.5 million; Millstreet is more like 1,500.
Claragh Mountain is one aspect of their experience there that comes up several times in our conversation, and it’s a beautiful sight that Yasmin, in particular, was taken with, showing photos of the mountain in the summertime on her phone.
They came to Kingston College in Mitchelstown on August 19th. Moving into the houses, of course, involves a certain amount of exposure due to the DIY:SOS housing renovation filming project, which occurred over a 10-day period in July. Olena admits that she was initially hesitant about getting involved, but decided to, with the support of the family. Seeing the houses before and after the renovation work she describes the work done in ten days as “a miracle”.
It is said that moving house is the most stressful thing most people will do in their lifetime. Moving country at the drop of a hat is that, multiplied by a thousand. The complete unknown of the future makes it impossible to make plans, to say where they might be in a month, six months, one year.
“The most important thing is that we’re all alive, and in a safe place. A lot of people have lost their lives, or are disabled or injured. Thank God we’re alive.”
Yasmin speaks about how a few days previously, her mother ‘cried a lot’. It was in the aftermath of news coverage of nuclear weapons, and she tells how her mother had pains in her chest, and in her heart. They check the news con